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Bottleneck, Watford Palace Theatre

Luke Barnes
Directed by Steven Atkinson

★★★★

Pros: An incredibly powerful script delivered by a dynamic and talented performer.

Cons: A lacklustre epilogue was a disappointing close to an otherwise completely engaging production.

Our Verdict: A great piece of new writing and a shining example of what solo performances should strive for.

Courtesy of Watford Palace Theatre

Bottleneck, a product of HighTide Fesitval Theatre, wrapped up in London last week with a one-off performance at the Watford Palace Theatre after a brief run at the Soho Theatre. The solo piece was originally staged at the Edinburgh Fringe and after a tremendous reception at the festival in September, has embarked on a limited tour before it finishes off at the HighTide Festival in May. Thursday’s performance in Watford included a short but insightful post-show talk with the creative team, including director Steven Atkinson and actor James Cooney, both of whom have been with the play from the start.

The solo piece about a Liverpool teenager in 1989 is an excellent composition by young playwright Barnes, who, along with director Steven Atkinson, is himself a Liverpool native. Funny, poignant, and infinitely surprising, it captures the ordinary trials of early teenage years but culminates in far more serious matters. Greg, portrayed by Cooney, is an unpopular 14-year -old with little parental support and an asthmatic, effeminate best friend called Tom. The first half of the play we spend getting to know Greg and enjoying his hijinks with Tom as they attempt to raise money for tickets to a Liverpool FC game. While Cooney’s charming performance makes it easy to get comfortable and feel like we’ve made a funny new friend in Greg, the shadow of danger lingers. Greg’s relationship with his father is rocky at best and hints of abuse are peppered throughout, sexual abuse among Greg’s peers makes its appearance as well. However, the ultimate shock and tragedy of the piece is its culmination in the infamous disaster at Hillsborough Stadium in 1989.

Barnes deserves high praise for his skill in constructing a story that leads perfectly into tragedy without becoming sentimental or overdramatic. While his historic setting and development of his characters funnels perfectly into placing them at Hillsborough, he never beats us over the head with where the story is going, which can so often happen with dramatizations of historical tragedies. One of Bottleneck’s great strengths is its natural feeling – which is sometimes hard to come by in solo pieces. Essentially, Barnes hits on an important balance required for solo shows, one that many solo pieces seem to move towards but struggle to achieve. The result was a highly entertaining and ultimately moving theatrical experience, which owes much to its director and performer as well. Unfortunately, the last moments dampened an otherwise brilliant script – a short 20-years-later epilogue to close the show is employed which lacked the spirit of the rest of the play and felt rather cheap and unsatisfying in comparison.

The last moments were certainly an unfortunate exception to the rest of play however, which was far and away one of this reviewer’s favorite performances to date (in terms of solo pieces it’s really blown the rest away). With Barnes’ natural and well-devised script at his disposal, Cooney shone as a bright new talent to watch out for and hopefully the success and reach of Bottleneck will allow us more opportunities to see him on the stage. The design was simple but effective – the use of stadium lights in particular created a nice but simple look for the show.

Unfortunately, Bottleneck has left London for the time being but according to Atkinson, Barnes is at work on a new play, and if this one’s anything to go by, tickets will be well worth buying.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Bottleneck has completed its run at Watford Palace Theatre, but tours the UK through April 29th, and will be at the HighTide Festival May 2-12 2013.
Book tickets online at http://www.hightide.org.uk/shows, or call HighTide’s box office at 01603598606.

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